Your Writing Career May Depend on Someone You Never Meet

Yesterday I read and Tweeted about an article at Publishing Perspectives, “Career Reinvention for Publishing Professionals” by Andrew Malkin.

To me it was both useful and sadly prescient; it made me recall the Richard Bolles’ book, What Color Is Your Parachute?, originally self-published for a large number of the clergy who suddenly found themselves out of work.

But Malkin’s
article isn’t so much a how-to as a mini-memoir of how he’s developed
skills that make him attractive to a number of industries—even though
he’s still closely associated with traditional media by working at Zinio.

The article particularly struck home with me because a close colleague of mine, Kelly Nickell, who has served at Writer’s Digest since 2000, is moving onto a digital marketing agency as a copywriter.

is interested in growing her skill set and exploring new opportunities,
and I know why. I look at my own narrow experience and think that if I
lost my job tomorrow, my contacts and very specific publishing
experience make it difficult to land anywhere but … another media
company (which aren’t exactly in hiring mode).

So, when I Tweeted Malkin’s piece, it was with these issues in mind, rather than its insight for writers.

But an insightful novelist and screenwriter, Jacqueline Lichtenberg, clicked
through and found a lesson in Malkin’s story, which she wrote about on
her blog. I’m re-posting the most relevant bits here. You can read her full post here, and be sure to follow her on Twitter.

This is the story of a
man who can talk PUBLISHING without ever referencing a compelling
story, plot, worldbuilding, background, character arc, or any of the
things that matter to us readers and writers.

From Andrew R. Malkin’s perspective, publishing isn’t about “compelling stories” at all.

most, he mentions one author’s name—and without a word about what
delicious, beloved characters this author has made famous! He never
talks about the fascinating relationships among characters, the drama,
the penetrating themes or pithy language as sources of the success of
his own efforts to market them.

This is a description of a
“characters welcome” character, a career marketer, a kind of person
that a writer never, ever, encounters, but upon whom a writer’s career

The writer deals with the Agent, the Agent deals with
the Editor, the Editor deals with her Managing Editor or Committee —
the book is contracted, edited, copy edited, designed, assigned a cover
— turned over to publicity (some writers get to know their publicist;
most don’t) — and then some layers beyond that publicist, the property
reaches this man’s hands where it lives or dies without having been
read by most of the people who packaged the product.

doesn’t matter how COMPELLING your story is or how marvelously smooth
the craftsmanship when this man causes success or failure of the book.

same multi-layered business model structure is used by TV and film
industries, eventually causing films to live or die at the box office
on the expertise of a man just like this one.

This is the
structure of the “Fiction Delivery System” the very existence of which
is hidden from the writer. The writer is never trained in how to
leverage the existence of these decision makers upon whom his/her
destiny depends. The reader/viewer never hears about these people.

Read this man’s career carefully.

that blog entry describing his history and his shift into the
electronic book publishing industry and you may come to understand
better “what” is happening to ebook publishing as the big guys take
over, and why they do what they do despite anything we can do or be or

What do you think? Is Jacqueline right? Does your success depend on these people working behind the curtain?

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7 thoughts on “Your Writing Career May Depend on Someone You Never Meet

  1. Jacqueline Lichtenberg


    You make an excellent point. The world has changed (for the better, I think) and with that change comes the necessity for creative artists in all fields to absorb a grounding in the techniques of "Business."

    I’m thankful there are so many teaching, but the neo-writers I sometimes deal with are still clueless (before I get my clutches on them, anyway).

  2. Patricia Volonakis Davis

    I haven’t much to add to the intelligent comments here except to say that there are more and more of us teaching writers to be better business peopleand cognizant of what goes on behind the scenes and Jane and I are two of them. But there are plenty of others out there and writers – best selling or otherwise, would do well to read them, since we can’t hand ‘a delightful manuscript with in-depth characterizations’ to the bank when the mortgage comes due.

    I don’t necessarily agree that creative types cannot be business types and "that’s what agents are for." I think any artist today, not just us writers, who relies solely on an agent or a business manager to handle finances, contracts, etc. so he or she can ‘go create in peace’, is simply asking to get ripped off. Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails comes to mind….(

  3. Jacqueline Lichtenberg

    I agree that writers need to understand what the marketers "need" to do their jobs. But who’s teaching that to writers? And how many really talented writers have the mental and emotional capacity to wrap their mentality around that point of view? It’s alien to the creative mind. (that’s what agents are for, after all)

    My premise in a blog post not referenced here above that because of the internet and Web 2.0 and computer database search like Google and Amazon we now have the tools to connect the marketer directly with the customer and include in the marketing decisions specific elements of content (character, happy ending, point of view shifts, theme, etc). So I discuss reasons why we haven’t done that (yet).

    Hissn Lissn:
    You have followed my thinking exactly. As Theodore Sturgeon always said ASK THE NEXT QUESTION.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

  4. Hissn Lissn

    Haircuts and briefcases beat all others in the race to extract profit from new media, and literature’s always last. Fifteen years from now we’ll all be touting rogues printing books out of their garages.

    Seems to me the question should be, "to what extent will you allow a shadow figure / middle-man control your destiny?"

  5. Greg Pincus

    Publishing is a business and has to have folks focused on the bottom line, not on character development. Ideally everything and everyone works together, as it doesn’t help those behind the drapes to release books that don’t sell. Still, rather than worrying if those folks can determine success, why not focus on what we can control and what we can do to help ourselves so that "they" have less influence? A strong platform and a network of fans can be a tool in its own right (for traditionally published books or for a move to self-pubbed or e-only, etc) and, if it’s big enough, can also have influence on the people within "big publishing." I mean, who would want to upset Neil Gaiman’s fan base? It wouldn’t be a wise business decision… and publishing is a business. Sure, most of us will never reach that level, but it’s never been easier to connect and help oneself do or be or become whatever we want.

  6. Donna

    I think your success as a writer doesn’t depend upon the people behind the curtain. But – and maybe my previous career as an advertising exec colors my thinking here – I think you need to understand what those people need. You don’t have to write for them, no, but you need to think about how they’ll understand your book from a marketing perspective. Malkin made a good decision, striking out in a different direction and broadening his perspective. That would help anyone, not just writers and publishers, to stay relevant.


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